The impending purchase of Truckee Springs by the Truckee Donner Land Trust seems like a no-brainer ultimate fate for the piece of land — after all, we’re talking 26.33 acres of riverside meadow and forested land that’s been privately owned for decades sitting just south of downtown Truckee.
But the road to public land has been a winding one.
The TDLT plans to make the land a publicly accessible park, connecting parkgoers to downtown via a future pedestrian bridge over the Truckee River and patching a missing link of the Legacy Trail from Glenshire Drive to Donner Lake. Development had its chance with the parcel but nothing happened, and the park is an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to better connect with nature.
“I’m absolutely astonished that in 2020 we’re able to purchase this thing as open space,” said Perry Norris, executive director of the TDLT. “I don’t know why it never got built … This is a conspicuous piece of property, it’s not hidden behind any piece of ridge. It’s right in your face downtown and everybody knows it. It is incredible for the past 40 years the thing’s just kind of been vacant.”
For half of those four decades, Truckee Springs has been on the land trust’s radar, echoed Greyson Howard, TDLT’s communications director. “That’s how a lot of our deals work: They start out as a ‘wouldn’t it be neat if’ or a dream that kind of seems impossible, then 10 or 20 years later the opportunity arises, the stars align, and the deal can be made.”
Yet it’s been a circular journey: This swath of land has experienced a dramatic history since non-natives first stumbled upon the Truckee area. Plenty of industrialization, attempts at development, and even the early days of Truckee’s tourism industry are tied to the parcel.
Listen to an audio version of this story below, aired on Moonshine Minutes, our collaborative project with KTKE 101.5.
In the beginning (until 1844)
Truckee as a whole is the ancestral land of the Washoe Tribe — specifically the Northern Washoe people, known as the Welmelti in their native language (see In the Past for an overview of the tribes in the region as a whole). Darrel Cruz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Washoe Tribe, told Moonshine an important habitation site for his people once sat at the confluence of Donner Creek and the Truckee River, named datsa sut malam deteyi.
Once white Euro-American people began crossing the Sierra Nevada in 1844, the Northern Washoe people still utilized the area, working on farms and ranches around Truckee, but it was short-lived.
“We were forced to move somewhere once all the lands became occupied,” Cruz explained. “First thing they did is put up fences, we can no longer go to places. We had to move on. We never really freely left the place — it was more or less the conditions that necessitated we move out there.”
The Truckee Springs parcel specifically, Cruz continued, is important to the tribe because it represents their cultural affiliation to the area; it’s something that is important to the Washoe people still. Enough so that the TDLT reached out to the Washoe Tribe with the idea for preserving the area and adding a bike path to pass through.
“We support that,” Cruz said. “We support it because it’s going to maintain the integrity of the open space.”
Enter industrialization (1866-1909)
Truckee Springs saw its first constructed building in 1866 when George Schaffer — one of Truckee’s original settlers — built a sawmill on the parcel. In 1871, he relocated and built his second sawmill in Martis Valley.
There’s no official transfer of land ownership from Schaffer to the Truckee Lumber Company, the next owner of the land — at least not that Chaun Mortier, treasurer for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, has seen — but it is likely to have happened, she said.
The TLC built a lumber yard on the land in 1873, connected to a water-powered mill on the north side of the Truckee River by an elevated tramway. Flumes, incinerators, and trestles were also constructed alongside the lumber yard.
At least part of the TLC’s work on Truckee Springs included milling lodgepole pine to ship fruit grown in Sacramento. As was the case across the country during this time period, TDLT’s Howard said, “rivers were industrial tools.”
He continued, explaining the increased demand for the TLC’s lumber: “With the creation of the transcontinental railroad, suddenly the breadbasket of the central valley was accessible to the rest of the country, so they needed boxes to package the fruit along with ice that was mined from the Boca ice dam and the other ice dams for keeping produce fresh to send California produce across the country.”
The lumber company ceased Truckee operations in 1909 and moved to Oroville. Mortier explained the reason for this relocation: “I would say by 1909 it was getting very difficult and expensive to get wood into Truckee as they had to go further and further out to establish logging camps.”
Historical Ice Capades (1913-1915)
Efforts for tourism in Truckee began at the end of the 19th century, led in part by C.F. McGlashan (a Truckee Renaissance man known to have been a teacher, newspaper editor, lawyer, scientist, author, politician, and historian). The historical society notes that the slope below Hilltop in Truckee (where Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar now sits) was often used for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding, but McGlashan amplified the uses by establishing the Great Truckee Winter Carnival in 1909.
On the Truckee Springs portion of land, McGlashan built an ice palace in 1913 to house an ice skating rink, a dance hall, and several rooms, as well as serve as the end point of toboggan runs. A footbridge was built across the Truckee River for people to access the ice palace from downtown. At this point in time, Mortier says it’s likely Truckee Springs was owned by Kruger Real Estate Company, but there’s no paper trail.
The ice palace (ironically built out of wood) burned down on June 20, 1915, though the ice skating pond remained and is even considered an important archaeological resource today.
“[The historical society] is being given the 2 acres that the historical foundation is on that was the ice palace and is now a pond,” wrote Mortier in an email. “That will happen in the near future. The rest of the land is being purchased by the land trust.”
The ‘logical poor man’s camping grounds’ (1916-unclear)
After the ice palace burned down in 1915, Truckee local Wally Gelatt was inspired to turn the parcel into a tent city in an effort to push Truckee tourism beyond its wintertime wonderland.
“Before summer is over,” read a May 18, 1916 Truckee Republican article, “Mr. Gelatt will have demonstrated that Truckee can easily take her own with the largest summer resorts in the mountains. Truckee is the logical poor man’s camping grounds. After he has his family comfortably [domiciled] for the summer he can come up from San Francisco on Saturday night, spend Sunday with them and leave on Sunday night and be back to work Monday morning.”
“I do not know how long it lasted,” Mortier said of the tent city, “but with the war coming on, [it] probably had an effect on that.”
Bright’s domain (1980)
It’s not known by the Town of Truckee nor the current Truckee Springs land developer consultant who exactly the Bright family purchased the property from, but in 1980, a sale took place and the Bright name would come to reign over the parcel for the next 40 years. Ron West, consultant for the Brights, was there at the beginning, offering insight to the family on purchasing additional pieces of land (the pond and entrance to the property were originally public utility district domain) to complete the package.
In 2006, Lyn Bright inherited the property when his father passed away. He and his two siblings sat down to divvy up the different family properties, but West said Bright “wanted Truckee from day one.”
Bright and West were college buddies back in the day, and spent the next 15ish years trying to find a buyer for the property. While West said he’s thrilled that the land will be used as a park, and that “the very best that could’ve happened, happened,” some of the developments that were initially proposed had sounded good to him at the time.
“Some of them would’ve really benefited those living and working right downtown,” he said. “I was disappointed we weren’t able to work with the town better in some ways to get some discussion. I’ve worked as a planner for 45 years … some cities and counties are harder to work with than others, each one is its own place.”
The could-haves and would-haves (1993 to 2019)
With housing an ever-hot topic in the region, a shiny riverfront chunk of land didn’t escape the umbrella of planning out an expanding town.
When Truckee first incorporated in 1993, its first few years revolved around the creation of the general plan and downtown specific plan, said Tony Lashbrook, who served as the town’s community development director from 1994 to 2005, then as town manager until 2017.
“There was a lot of public involvement,” he said. “More public involvement in the downtown specific plan than any planning process the town has undertaken, including to-date in my opinion. People were really fired up to be in charge of their own destiny.”
The Truckee Springs property, Lashbrook continued, was initially zoned as multi-family and intended for a mobile home park. Single-family residences and lodging developments were eventually permitted zoning-wise as well.
Over the next two decades, a variety of proposals were put forward to the Bright family. Per the Town of Truckee’s planning department, the most recent development proposal, submitted in 2017, included a concept with four single-family residences, 72 multi-family residences, 12 affordable units, and a single-family alternative (42 single-family residences and six affordable units). A 2015 proposal had a similar set of concepts, plus lodging: four single-family residences and 105 lodging units.
“None of them, in my opinion, [were] particularly serious or ready to build,” Lashbrook said. “They pursued, but none of it really happened as you obviously can see.”
The 100-year plan (2019 and beyond)
The final hand-off of the Bright property is expected to take place June 2021, from the current owner to the land trust to a tune of $6 million (an additional $4 million will be used to purchase park amenities and build the river-spanning bridge and Legacy Trail connection). Not only is the parcel’s fate a happily-ever-after tale for most parties involved (more on that ‘most’ later), it also spells the final chapter of the Our Truckee River Legacy Foundation.
The idea for the legacy foundation had its unlikely start at a funeral in early 1997. During the reception portion of the service, Brent Collinson, then-president of the Rotary Club of Truckee, sat next to fellow member Kathleen Eagan, and the two talked about the club’s need for a long-term project. That conversation carried over onto the next club president’s plate, and the club decided to increase people’s awareness of and appreciation for the Truckee River by creating a trail. The legacy foundation was born.
“Frank Bulkley [Rotary president from 1999 to 2000] said, ‘The white man has messed up the river for 100 years,’” Collinson recalled. “‘It may take us 100 years to get it back, but let’s get started on it.’ … The main thing we wanted to do was try to get more public access to the river. That’s why we have the trail.”
Over 20 years later, three of the Truckee River Legacy Trail’s five phases are complete, with a paved 6-mile path from Glenshire Drive to the Truckee River Regional Park and the last two segments planned out. Phase four will be satisfied by the land trust’s project; phase five will be completed through the Elements at Coldstream project, bringing the trail all the way to Donner Lake.
Remaining legacy foundation funds, $150,000, will go toward the land trust’s acquisition of the parcel and the long-term maintenance of the trail, which fits the foundation’s purposes “like a glove,” in the opinion of Mitch Clarin, who’s not only a neighbor to the parcel but a member of the foundation.
“The [foundation] money was collected for the legacy trail,” Clarin explained. “Most of the rest of the legacy trail was completed, [but] here’s an open hole, like a tooth missing that we could fill in with money that was raised pretty much for that purpose. Once this hole, this tooth, is filled, there really is no purpose for the foundation to continue to exist.”
For Collinson, every time he uses the trail is a personal pat on the back for him and his team. “I think it’s a great project that started with a group of rotarians that has grown,” he said. “The town’s gotten involved, the land trust has gotten involved. That was kind of our hope, that we didn’t have to do it all ourselves. We’ve kind of accomplished our goal.”
There are other agencies and organizations involved: In addition to the historical society receiving 2 acres, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District is in talks with the land trust on how a partnership might best serve both parties.
Even with the camaraderie, it’s not a completely perfect project for Clarin and the other residents adjacent to the Truckee Springs property. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives, sure, Clarin said: a park system at the end of his street, a connection of trail systems, a pedestrian bridge that’ll lead to downtown, and absence of a brick and mortar development. But there is a negative Clarin sees — an increase in traffic along South River Street.
“There’s a 30-spot parking lot going in on Truckee Springs at the foot of the bridge,” Clarin said. “That’s going to encourage people to drive down South River Street to park at that side of the bridge.”
The land trust said the number of parking spots hasn’t been finalized, but the lot has been pushed further into the 26 acres and away from South River Street “to minimize impact,” Howard said. “We expect the majority of users to access Truckee Springs via the pedestrian bridge [from West River Street], not South River.”
Overall, Clarin said the land trust has been fairly communicative with the houses lining South River Street, and the neighbors are “all banded together right now watching development” surround them (for example, a hotel might serve as entrance to South River Street).
Still, of all the potential developments that could have filled the space beyond the current cul-de-sac, Clarin said a park is “by far the best use of the property that anybody could come up with.”
If history is known to repeat itself, the ballad of the Truckee Springs land seems to be coming back around. After its beginning as a mostly-untouched home to the Northern Washoe people, through the ups and downs of industrial uses, to the numerous development options, Truckee Springs’ fate is settling back to what it was initially: a riverfront piece of land for people to enjoy.
“Preservation is critical to our work, but we also have a strong public access component because we think the next generation of stewards is born by hiking on the land or biking on the land or swimming in the river — whatever it is,” said Howard “The real visceral connection is important.”